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Crisis looms without big cuts to over-tapped Colorado River

Western Drought Colorado River
Posted at 5:26 AM, Aug 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-19 07:26:47-04

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Hydroelectric turbines may stop turning. Las Vegas and Phoenix may be forced to restrict water usage or growth. Farmers might cease growing some crops, leaving fields of lettuce and melons to turn to dust.

Those are a few of the dire consequences that could result if states, cities and farms across the American West cannot agree on how to cut the amount of water they draw from the Colorado River.

Yet for years, seven states that depend on the river have allowed more water to be taken from it than nature can replenish. Despite widespread recognition of the crisis, the states missed a deadline this week to propose major cuts that the federal government has said are necessary.

And again, the government failed to force harsh decisions and stopped short of imposing the cuts on its own, despite previous threats to do so.

Any unilateral action from federal officials would likely move conversations from negotiating tables to courtrooms and delay action even longer.

The river, which cascades from the Rockies down to the deserts of the Southwest, quenches the thirst of 40 million people in the U.S. and Mexico and sustains a $15 billion-a-year agricultural industry.

But for a century, agreements governing how it's shared have been based on faulty assumptions about how much water is available. With climate change making the region hotter and drier, that discrepancy is becoming impossible to ignore.

Lake Powell and Lake Mead, the two largest reservoirs that hold Colorado River water, have fallen to dangerously low levels faster than anyone expected. The decline threatens to disrupt hydroelectric power production and water sent to cities and farms.

Though everyone agrees the stakes are high, states and the U.S. government have struggled to reach a consensus on what to do.

People have "been hoping to stave off this day," said Felicia Marcus, a former top water official in California, which holds the largest right to the river's water. “But now I think we can’t expect Mother Nature to bail us out next year. The time for some of these really hard decisions is now."

The river is also tapped by Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Mexico and some tribes.

For years, officials have issued warnings about the state of the river, but also reassured people that the system won't crash. That two-part message was front and center this week, when the states failed to meet a deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation for them to propose 15% to 30% cuts to their water use.

As the deadline passed Tuesday, the potentially dramatic moment amounted to a shrug. Officials said they still have faith the states will reach a deal if given more time.

Visiting California the next day, Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton repeatedly dodged questions about what might happen next. She’s given no specifics about what the bureau’s more aggressive actions might look like, or when they might happen.

The federal government, she said, “is ready to move forward on our own.” But officials "will continue to talk to everybody about what the process is.”

Not everyone is satisfied with that approach.

“I’m asking them to at least lay out very clearly how that threat will be imposed,” Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager John Entsminger said.

Entsminger and his counterparts in Arizona, Utah and California, as well as local officials in and around Phoenix, also repeated what has become a common refrain: They said they were gravely concerned about river’s future, yet wanted to reassure their water users that the river won't stop flowing imminently.